If you've ever seen the sun set over the Adriatic along the outer walls of Dubrovnik’s Old City, or watched it rise over neighboring Bosnia from atop Mt. Dinara’s 1,830 m summit, then the scope of Croatia’s scenic grandeur will need no introduction. A country nestled along the picturesque islands of the Dalmatian Coast, replete with historic architecture, limestone mountains and more attractive women than you can shake a stick at, you might get the impression that this is something of an unsung European paradise. As always, however, the truth is infinitely more complex. From its violent war with Serbia in the early 1990s to its EU accession some two decades later, Croatia’s past struggles with independence and current struggles with economic viability offer a far more telling picture of life here than its beautiful (and often tourist-saturated) coastline alone ever could. So before planning your trip around Hvar and Dubrovnik, take a minute or two to expand your understanding of this striking, rugged and multifaceted Balkan nation.
Here’s a suggestion for starters; consider broadening your search for unique cultural intrigue beyond Diocletian’s Palace (Split) and the Church of St. Donatus (Zadar). Worthy though popular sights like these may be, they also happen to be perpetually crammed with the kinds of travelers who consider 1st class train-rides in India to be “roughing it”. Your chances of finding any elusive, authentic bits of Croatia increase exponentially the farther away from the coast you venture, so why not start by extending your stay in Zagreb? A clean, modern metropolis complete with all the galleries, cafes (ubiquitous in this country) and architectural trimmings, this may very well be one of Europe’s most under-appreciated capital cities. Then, instead of following the crowds west, hop in the rental and take the A3 east towards Vukovar. There’s no telling what kinds of cultural insights may befall you amid this tragic yet resilient city’s bullet riddled buildings and renowned water tower (all testaments to the ferocity of Croatia’s War for Independence). The point is, the beaches will still be there after you've taken a little time to explore some of the country’s less celebrated but incredibly important cultural offerings.
Once you’re ready to take your journey into more adventurous territories, you’ll find that Croatia’s natural bounty can be catered to fit your taste for the extreme or the easy going alike. Plitvice Lakes National Park tends to be a crowd favorite for obvious reasons, but don’t let its tranquil beauty lull you into a false sense of security. This country offers geoparks (Papuk) with 500 million year old geological formations, rivers (Cetina, Una) with class III and IV rapids, limestone mountains (Pakelnica, Biokovo, Istrian Peninsula) with incredible hiking and rock climbing options, an Adriatic coastline replete with boating, scuba diving and windsurfing possibilities and, of course, a wealth of world-famous islands (Brac, Pag, Hvar, etc.) that provide all the nocturnal adventures a traveler could ask for. Because it’s not particularly large, it doesn't take much searching off the beaten path here to uncover the kind of unique natural scenery that makes your inevitable experiences in Split and Dubrovnik seem both more rewarding and well rounded. So take a little initiative and make your journey through Croatia one that breaks with the norm. You, along with the rest of the country, will be glad you did.
US citizens, as well as residents of Australia, New Zealand and most European countries, are not required to obtain a visa for visits to Croatia lasting less than 90 days. For info on your specific country of residence, visit Croatia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs webiste.
Though Croatia is a member state of the European Union, its national currency is the kuna. Some common exchange rates are: .18 USD / .13 EUR / .11 GPB. For up to the minute info on how your currency stacks up, click here.
Croatia is relatively new to the democratic scene, having been part of socialist Yugoslavia from 1945 to 1991, followed by the War of Independence with Serbia until 1995. Since the turn of the 21st century it has operated as a parliamentary democratic republic, presided over by an elected President (known as the President of the Republic) and a Prime Minister (known as the President of the Government). Its parliament is composed of two houses, the House of Representatives and the House of Counties, that oversee the legislative goings-on around the country, while the Supreme Court represents the highest judicial office of the land.
Croatian is a beautiful and challenging language all its own, spoken by roughly 6-7 million people worldwide. For better or worse, however, a profusion of American media and a booming tourism industry have made English all but a mandatory second language in Zagreb and pretty much anywhere along the coast. This means, even should you not speak the local dialect, English speakers will likely get by with ease in most areas of the country. Still, aside from it just being the right thing to do, knowing even a few basic phrases will allow you to better navigate some of the more remote parts of the Croatian interior. Not sure where to start? Try here.
Luckily for you, Croatia is one of Europe’s safest countries to visit. Crime rates are low, violent crime rates are even lower and political stability has been well established since the War of Independence ended in 1995. But before we paint too rosy a picture for you, bear in mind that pickpocketing and other forms of petty theft are risks in just about all of Croatia’s most popular tourist destinations. Also, despite an ongoing effort to deactivate or otherwise dispose of them, mines laid during the war still present a threat (albeit a well marked one) in more remote areas of the country. As long as you stay vigilant, keep your passport and money well guarded and use sound judgement regarding common problem areas (gentleman’s clubs, rowdy soccer matches, former conflict zones, etc.), your adventure should go off without anything even remotely resembling a hitch. But it never hurts to check out the US D.O.S. write up on Croatia just to be sure.
You’ve got several options when it comes to getting around Croatia, including a highway system that’s regarded as one of the best in Europe. With an admittedly odd geography that makes backtracking a likely occurrence on journeys down the coastline, you can either pay more for the independence of a rental or opt to utilize the country’s modern, inexpensive and well developed bus system. In contrast to the improvement of the roadways, however, rail travel has remained relatively stagnant here, with trains that are comfortable but not particularly well dispersed. For quick transportation your best bet will be Croatia Airlines, which provides plenty of domestic flights at dramatically different prices depending on the season.
As for traveling within cities, don’t let the fact that Croatia currently has no operable metro system fool you. Between the highly efficient Zagreb tramway and the clean, modern bus lines of Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik, etc, you won’t have any trouble navigating these moderately sized metropolises. Keep in mind that travel from coastal cities to the islands by ferry will requie some solid planning ahead of time, so it’s a good idea to check out schedules before you go.
Croatia has two predominant climate zones, continental and Mediterranean, which go a long way towards explaining why some areas are so much more popular than others. Along the country’s long, beautiful coastline, yearly temperatures are moderated by the Adriatic, providing plenty of sunshine and warmth throughout much of the year (mid April through October) for cities like Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik. Further inland, annual temperature changes tend to be more drastic, with hotter summers and colder winters that regularly drop below freezing in places like Zagreb and Osijek. Precipitation is generally highest country-wide during the winter months (November - February), though rainfall amounts drop precipitously along the coast during the summer.
Tipping in Croatia is fairly straightforward. If you’re dining out, feel free to add an extra 10-15% for service that ranges from good to excellent. This should be the norm, even in restaurants where a service fee is added to the bill. For smaller eateries, cafes (of which there are countless) and taxis, rounding up your change will be just fine.
As for meals and mealtimes, keep in mind that Croatia is a Mediterranean country, so there’s plenty of Italian-inspired pesca to go around. Good Slavic and Dalmatian cooking is plentiful too. And while visitors will usually find establishments serving food at any time of the day, you’ll most likely be enjoying these flavors around traditional European mealtimes, including lunches that run from 12 - 2 pm and dinners that typically start after 7 pm.
While the letter of Croatian law states that both the purchase and consumption of alcohol are illegal for persons under the age of 18, the latter stipulation is rarely adhered to. Not that we’re advocating breaking the law, mind you, just calling a spade a spade. And speaking of drinking, you’ll find plenty of alcoholic options unique to Croatia, including Ozujsko and Karlovacko (popular, albeit not particularly exciting, national brews) as well as a collection of domestically produced wines. Cheap red wine mixed with Coke (called “bambus”) is a particular favorite, but there are plenty of varietals tasty enough to be consumed on their own. And should you be feeling particularly curious, ask the bartender for a glass of rakija. Be warned, however; this locally produced brandy-esque liquor packs a punch.
Though there are disputes over the assertions that Croatia has given the world both Marco Polo and the Slavic Glagolitic alphabet, its undisputed claim to fame (ok, aside from Nikola Tesla) is the necktie. Yep. Dapper men everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to the Croatian military, who introduced this knotted neck-adornment to the French (of all people) back in the 17th century. Your “ohhhh” moment should occur right about now, because the word “cravat” is actually a corruption of the French word for Croat. Now you can look smooth AND feel smart on your trip.
Peak season:July through August
Religion:Predominantly Roman Catholic
The Dubrovnik Summer Festival
In the biggest festival in Croatia, the Old Town of Dubrovnik becomes an annual smorgasbord of music, dancing, and theater during the months of August and September. Be sure to check out the amazing Shakespearean productions put on around the town.
Garden Festival and Electric Elephant Festival
Held in successive weeks in July, these two festivals have very different names and very similar purposes: to party. Set in the tiny fishing village of Petrcane, you can expect two weeks of international DJ's, a plethora of boat parties, and other fun activities. If you are down for the Garden Festival, make sure to secure your tickets to the aptly named Argonaughty Boat Parties. Petrcane, the unlikely dance capital of Croatia is also home to a number of other music festivals, including Stop Making Sense in September and Airbound in July.
Motovun Film Festival
A small film festival held in the medieval hillside town of the same name, Motovun has grown in international status over the years, prizing the innovation of independent films over Hollywood fare. Join the hordes of young film fans in the large camp set up at the base of the hill, a six day event that starts at the end of July.